Refreshing research on rural drinking water

Jul 17th, 2015

By Cathy Newhook

Refreshing research on rural drinking water

A tall glass of water. Refreshing? Absolutely. Safe? Well that is something Dr. Tahir Husain, associate dean (research) with Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, is working on.

For many communities in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, sophisticated water treatment plants are financially out of the question. This is why 459 of the 536 public water supply systems in the province use a simple chlorination process.

However, chlorination of water sources that contain high levels of organic matter – naturally occurring in lakes and ponds – results in disinfection by-products (DBPs). A report by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Environment and Conservation stated that almost one third of the 459 communities using chlorination as their only source of water treatment had DBP levels higher than recommended Canadian guidelines. 

With funding from the Harris Centre’s RBC Water Research and Outreach Fund, Dr. Tahir Husain and his team have been working on an innovative, affordable solution to this issue since 2011 and have made some significant progress.

“In developing countries, around 4,000 children die each day because they don’t have access to safe drinking water. If you cannot provide safe drinking water to rural communities in a country like Canada, there is something wrong,” said Dr. Husain. “We have resources, we have technology, but still we have water quality issues that are increasing our health risks.”

Dr. Husain’s research is based on using oily fly ash (waste generated from the burning of heavy fuel oil to generate electricity) which is comprised of 70-85% unburned carbon, a common material used in water filtration. Dr. Husain’s initial studies have shown that by placing a simple, cost-effective carbon barrier made from the oily fly ash within an existing water treatment system, it can remove more than 60 per cent of DBPs – making the water more than safe by Canadian standards.

Currently, Dr. Husain and his team are working with three communities in the province, Sunnyside, Salvage, and New-Wes-Valley. The team is testing both source and tap water from the three communities to determine the most effective material to be used in the process, as well as the most effective implementation method. This new data, combined with previous work in communities such as Pouch Cove, brings the team one step closer to commercialization of their product, and an affordable, effective water treatment method from small communities across the Newfoundland and Labrador, and around the world. 



Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science

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Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000